A simple framework for assessing the purity of desert bred Arabian horses

By Edouard Aldahdah

Posted on March 16th, 2010 in General

Just reposting this old article, to stimulate a new discussion around it. It is slightly revised, to reflect the evolution of thought on this issue.

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The idea of an international registry for Asil Arabian horses has been gaining momentum over the last few years, not only within Western asil breeeders’ circles, but among Arab breeders as well.  Such a registry is long overdue and would be the purists’ answer to WAHO, in my  opinion.

Several Western organizations have come close to establishing such a registry. The largest effort so far is that of the Asil Club in Germany, which in addition to bloodlines represented in Western breeding [Egyptian bloodlines, various bloodlines from the USA, the remaining asil lines from Crabbet in the UK, Weil-Marbach in Germany and Babolna in Hungary] also includes the horses of the Royal Arabian Studs of Bahrain and those of the Saudi Arabian government stud of Dirab.  In the 1970s, the Asil Club also considered adding the Tunisian horses to its list, and is currently considering adding the Syrian horses (more on this move later, and what I think of it).

Then there is Al Khamsa. While their roster is not the most inclusive (indeed, they tend to consider only those horses whose descendants came to the USA or Canada), it is without a doubt the most serious effort at researching the horses’ background and establishing their authenticity.

More recently, the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse has been trying to establish such a global registry of asil horses, but I am not abreast of the latest developments on this front [I need to call Anita].

A few years earlier, US and European preservation breeders like Rosemary Byrnes Doyle and Hansi Heck-Melnyk to name just a few, gathered in Abu Dhabi during the WAHO conference there, to discuss the idea of an International Registry of Desert Arabian Horses (not sure what the exact name they gave it was). They got a lot of initial traction, but the effort ultimately faltered because of the difficulty to reach an agreement on what the definition of an asil horse was. The reason they felt that a definition was such an important prerequisite was because it allowed to determine which bloodlines were asil and which ones were not.

The matters was a relatively easy one as long as  asil Arabian bloodlines bred in Egypt and in the West were concerned.  Al Khamsa and the Asil Club, and other too, are in near complete agreement about which horses are Asil Club eligible or Al Khamsa eligible, and which ones are not.

But what about the others, the ones still in the countries of Arabia Deserta, the original homeland of these horses? What about the Bahraini horses? It is complicated. What about the North African horses? It gets more complicated. The Syrian horses? Even more complicated. And the Iraqi horses? Here ones reaches levels of complication never attained before. And I am not even mentioning potential asil horses from Iran, Turkey, Libya, and other countries on the fringes of Arabia Deserta.

How can one ascertain the purity of these horses in an environment where, until recently, such knowledge was only transmitted orally, and where opinions and sources of information differ tremendously?  One cannot help being drawn into issues of legitimacy, which complicates the task even further. You’d hear things like: ”Who are Western breeders to determine if our horses are asil or not?” or even better: “We Arabs know more than Westerners do, because these are Arabian horses”.

In my opinion, both Arabs and Westerners are equally well positioned to do the job of identifying and preserving the world population of asil Arabian horses. This is why they need to work hand in hand, and why they need each other. Westerners are well positioned because they already undertook this registration effort in their own countries, with some success (e.g., Al Khamsa, Asil Club). Arabs are well positioned because their standards of purity are different from those of the Westerners, and because one needs to abide by these standards if one wants to preserve the horses of the Bedouin the way Bedouins did for centuries (again, my own opinion). That said, not all Arabs are of Bedouin origins (far from it), and Arabs do not have the monopoly of knowledge on Arabian horses..

Debates about definitions are endless. One could discuss forever what purity means, and if desert-bred automatically means asil, and what is asil, and who decides what is asil and what is not, and according to what criteria, etc… The discussion is fascinating, but there is a point of diminishing returns, a tipping point where discussion need to end and action needs to start, even at the expense of setting precise rules of the game.

In the interest of practicality and of getting things done, I suggest the following simple framework to assess the eligilbility of desert Arabian horses in any future Global Asil Horse Registry (GAHR).

It consists of three levels of eligibility in the form of concentric circles [Jane Ott also had three levels: BLUE STARS, Blue Lists, and Sublists, but mine are different]. There are specific eligibility criteria attached to each level of course, and I do have a lot to say about who I think should have the privilege of fixing these criteria, but lets hold on to that thought for later. Note that these criteria only apply to those Arabian horses of desert bloodlines, currently living in Arabia Deserta (Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabian, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Lebanon).

So, here goes:

Level A: These are the purest of the pure, and include any or all of the following criteria:

– the ones there is a broad consensus about in their place of origin

– the ones we are fairly certain (as certain as one can be in an oral culture) can be traced back to a long time

– the ones bred by the owner of the strain

– the ones kept in relative isolation

– the ones not bred to outside stallions except very choiced ones

– the ones we know for a fact don’t have an admixture of foreign blood.

Level A horses are comparable to the best-authenticated Al Khamsa Foundation horses (for example: Queen of Sheba and Sherifa of the Blunts, Urfa, Reshan, and Haleb of Davenport, and Jalam al-Ubayan and Turfa of the Saudi Arabian imports to the USA, Bint El Bahreyn and Zobeyni in Egypt). These are few and precious.

Level (B):  These are the ones we guess are pure, or should be pure, or rather the ones there is no reason to think are not pure, although:

– they no longer belong to the original owner of the strain

– they changed owners and tribes frequently (thus maximizing the risk of exposure),

– they have been bred to stallions outside the tribe, etc.

This is the category the wide majority of the Syrian horses falls in. They are comparable to the average Al Khamsa Foundation horse: many Danveports (Kusof, El Bulad, Houran, Farha, etc) many BLUE STARs (such as those “said to be from Ibn Saud”), many Egyptian horses (Rabdan El Azrak, Koheilan El Mossen), etc.

Level (C): These are the ones we need to learn a lot more about so they gain Level B status. They are comparable to the Al Khamsa horses we know little about (e.g, Maidan, Kismet, Dwarka, Mameluke, El Samraa, El Shahbaa, Halabia, Beshier El Ashkar, Badria, etc)

Of course, there is an additional level. which consists of the ones we know are not pure, or we seriously doubt are not pure, and these have no place in the registry. Let others worry about them.

17 Responses to “A simple framework for assessing the purity of desert bred Arabian horses”

  1. So would mtDNA testing have a place in this as a source of dispute resolution? I’m not very up on the science- but is there a little marker or flag if you will that on a molecular level differentiates a Thoroughbred from an Asil Arabian?
    Also are there still Asil crabbets? And while this is open does Spain have any Asil horses?
    many thanks
    Bruce Peek

  2. No mtDNA has nothing to do with this. Again, the concept of asil is a cultural notion, it is not a scientific one.

    There is only one group of asil Crabbets left. It is in the USA. They are known as the Doyle Arabian horses.

    Also no more Spanish asils.

  3. Also the only aspect of the pedigree addressed by mtDNA analysis is the tail-female line. If I bred one of my Davenport mares of the *Reshan dam line to a Quarter Horse stallion, the foal would still have the same mtDNA haplotype as its mother. So in that case mtDNA would be useful for establishing tail-female descent from a mare of the *Reshan line, but that is all.

    This is why mtDNA analysis has been used to answer questions such as whether the Bint Yemama tail-female descendants match the tail-female Bint Helwa descendants (as Lady Anne Blunt’s writings suggest they should) or match the tail-female Makbula descendants (as pedigrees issued in Egypt in the 1930s suggest they should), but has not been used to address broad questions of breed purity or asil status.

  4. Hows about other genetic markers? For example the Kiger Mustang folks never tire of telling you about the number 2 or 3 chromosome of their horses being identical or nearly so with those of modern day Spanish Andalusions…Therefore they say, this proves that kigers are closely related to Andalusions.. Knowledgeable historians of course say that no- actually it proves that Modern andalusions and kigers had common anscestors. Most likely the common anscestors were the old spanish jennets brought here in colonial days.. Also Gus Cothrans of the U of Kentucky has done some genetic mapping to measure genetic drift. If i recall correctly he was able to differentiate between U. S. show system general list Arabs and Blue Stars. He reportedly found the Blue stars to be the,” purest,” horses in terms of the most genetic similarity. I would think this makes sense given the historical record.
    Best Wishes
    Bruce Peek

  5. Genetic similarity (meaning fewer alleles?) doesn’t appear to me to have anything to do with purity. In my opinion, it means a closed herd that has been linebred and dropped out most of the variation available at the time the group was closed.

    I would love to hear Michael Bowling on that topic.

  6. Me, too!

  7. It would be most interesting to hear Dr. Cothran. I really appreciate his perspective because he is `pure` science (excuse the word use). He has no horses and no interest in proving anything about one group over another.
    I think his comments on few alleles has a great deal to do with lining out origin of particular horses… or also whether a group of horses descends from many horses from a variety of places. A person could make their own conclusions about purity of horses showing a variety of origins….. at any rate, I am not the scientist, and will conclude nothing … .

  8. It would be most interesting to hear Dr. Cothran. I really appreciate his perspective because he is `pure` science (excuse the word use). He has no horses and no interest in proving anything about one group over another.
    I think his comments on few alleles has a great deal to do with lining out origin of particular horses… or also whether a group of horses descends from many horses from a variety of places. A person could make their own conclusions about purity of horses showing a variety of origins….. at any rate, I am not the scientist, and will conclude nothing … .
    Incidentally, Dr. Cothran is no longer at the U of Ky; he is at TX A & M.
    My real reason for commenting here is that we should NOT determine here, or conclude here, what may or may not eventually be discovered through genetic study. I think it has almost limitless possibilities.
    And Dr. Cothran is probably not going to make any conclusions about anything until next year at least. He and his graduate student are in a pretty extensive study.

  9. Sorry about the naive question, but who is Dr. Cothran, Edie?

  10. Do the scientists without any horses have any interest at all in orienting their work toward attracting grant funding or research dollars to their university departments? If they do, are their scientific hearts still “pure”?

    If the Doyle horses turn out to have fewer alleles than the American Blue Stars, does that make the Doyle horses more pure? Or does it just mean that the Doyle horses went through a still smaller genetic bottleneck and have been bred as a closed herd for longer?

  11. Wow. I can hear the defense attorney here.. RJ, I would not want to be in a courtroom with (against) you!

  12. As pure as any other researchers at reputable Universities, whose work and proposals are peer reviewed. Peer review which is light years more objective than 99% of what passes for journalism in the corporate controlled press in the United States.
    Also one mans genetic bottleneck and closed herd breeding is another mans carefully structured breeding program. Careful analysis of most any animal breeding program- be it inbreeding, line breeding or outcrossing reveals that mam -mal genomes at least, are not setup for stasis. In order to avoid colliding with conformational or behavioural disaster you need to sometimes outcross if you have an inbreeding system… If on the other hand you want to adhere to breed type in an outcross program you need to sometimes throw in a couple generations of close breeding to avoid odd looking throwbacks. So eventually what you end up with is a system of linebred outcrossing. Something like linebreed for four generations, then outcross.
    best wishes
    Bruce Peek

  13. That sounds logical in theory, but I am not sure it holds up. There are a number of us who have been working with breeding groups that have been closed for many more than four generations, and which have gone through major bottlenecks, and they still are doing just fine. No disaster. When Charles started with the Davenports in 1955, he was told that there weren’t enough of them left, they were too closely related, he might get one or two generations, but then it would be disaster. He figured they were probably right, since it was logical in theory, but he would just follow the bloodlines where they went. I am sure that is the way Dr. Doyle looked at it, also. Just follow what the horses themselves tell you.

    And the pages of the book just keep opening, and we just keep following….

  14. That sounds logical in theory, but I am not sure it holds up. There are a number of us who have been working with breeding groups that have been closed for many more than four generations, and which have gone through major bottlenecks, and they still are doing just fine. No disaster. When Charles started with the Davenports in 1955, he was told that there weren’t enough of them left, they were too closely related, he might get one or two generations, but then it would be disaster. He figured they were probably right, since it was logical in theory, but he would just follow the bloodlines where they went. I am sure that is the way Dr. Doyle looked at it, also. Just follow what the horses themselves tell you.

    And the pages of the book just keep opening, and we just keep following….

  15. Hi Edouard,

    Great that you re-posted this article. I am in no way sufficiently informed to follow the science discussed here (sadly), but my passion for the asil horses nevertheless run deep as you know. I would like to know, based on your list, where my Mandour might fall in all of this. I look forward more than I can say to the moment when we can have a global asil association for the really pure horses.

    Thanks,
    Elena in Bologna

  16. I think science is remarkable and can be very instructive. However I also feel that most traditional Arab horse preservationists center their interest around horses handed down from the breed’s originating culture. This is a broad entity comprised of a wide range of Bedouin tribes, both migrating and settled from time to time. Anywhere else in the world where there is migration over time, the results are somewhat in flux depending on many regional variables and such should be tolerated in the tribal context. With what we have to work with now and in the future, I would not want to make a distinction of which tribe or sources are more likely to be “pure” based on science. The pragmatic and variable circumstances of a tribe’s migration over time must be taken into account in the breed’s creation generally. So I see the breed’s roots as being defined by culture, and science can only attempt to map those decisions later.

  17. Joe Ferris said: ” So I see the breed’s roots as being defined by culture, and science can only attempt to map those decisions later.”

    I love your statement Joe.

    Elena

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